June 17, 2011 / 6:58 AM / 9 years ago

RPT-FEATURE-Hunt for Gaddafi backers in east Libya shows tension

* Rebels in Benghazi frustrated as war drags on

* Tension high, violence on the rise in rebel stronghold

* Some locals blame criminal gangs, turf wars

(Repeats from June 16, no change to text)

By Maria Golovnina

BENGHAZI, Libya, June 16 (Reuters) - With conflict dragging into a fifth month, a series of blasts and shootings has rattled the east Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi and fuelled a drive to weed out Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists.

Increasingly frustrated that their initial race towards Tripoli has turned into a crawl, rebels are blaming the Libyan leader’s supporters for the city’s sporadic violence even though some locals say it is more about criminal gangs and turf wars.

“If they come forward and say sorry, then we will accept them, take their weapons and forgive them. We encourage them to come forward peacefully,” said Faraj Mohammad Hussein, 61, an army officer, referring to what he said were loyalist groups.

“But all they do is plant bombs and shoot. They’ve been killing people in the streets. We will hunt them down and if they resist we will kill them,” he said of the loyalists he blamed for attacks that included a blast at a hotel this month.

The drive to blame Gaddafi supporters highlights growing tension in the rebel-held east as the war in Libya grinds on.

It also underscores the challenge the rebel authority faces in controlling a city awash with guns and as grievances emerge that were long repressed by the Libyan leader’s iron rule.

On the surface, Benghazi appears to have returned to normal after chaos and lawlessness in the early days of the revolt.

Shops and cafes are open, maze-like markets are crowded with shoppers, stalls are heavy with farm produce. Smartly turned out police direct traffic.

But behind the facade of normality, there is a sense of nervousness. Many people now possess guns. Explosions and brief exchanges of fire ring out almost every night.

Neighbourhoods are patrolled by armed vigilante groups, and ordinary people worry about crime and being caught up in fighting between rebels and their suspected opponents.

Sermons calling for the overthrow of Gaddafi’s rule echo around the centre from mosque loudspeakers late into the night, the muezzin’s fiery voice cracking with fervour.

Locals say up to 10 percent of Benghazi’s 750,000 population is still betting on Gaddafi’s victory after months of fighting between the rebels, who control the east, and Gaddafi’s army, which is entrenched in western Libya.

SETTLING SCORES

But some say past grievances, long shelved during decades of repression, are resurfacing with renewed bitterness.

One Benghazi resident, Isa, said two people were killed two days ago in a shootout after a family feud escalated.

He said the row started after relatives of victims shot by Gaddafi soldiers in a 1996 massacre in Libya’s top security Abu Salim prison tried to settle scores with people they thought were linked to Gaddafi’s government.

“Those who were killed were Gaddafi supporters,” he said.

In another incident, a driver working with a foreign agency was wounded in a crossfire this week, his colleagues said.

The incidents have created tension in the city, which slipped from Gaddafi’s control shortly after the revolt erupted in mid-February. It lies about 150 km (90 miles) east of the frontline that divides Libya and that has been static for weeks.

“They are hiding. If we find them, we will mince them into pieces,” said Awad Ali, 41, a construction worker buying melons at one of Benghazi’s biggest souqs and talking of those he said were loyalists stalking the city.

“Those who mean no harm, it’s fine. But those who are trying to damage the cause of the revolution — even if it’s my own brother — I am ready to kill them myself,” he said, in comments repeated by many in this city.

For many, however, security concerns are second to more urgent bread and butter issues. For example, a litre of milk has doubled in past weeks to 2 dinars, and so has the price for applies, a kilogram of which now costs 4 dinars.

“Before the revolution life was normal. Now, life is abnormal. Nothing is normal. But we have to be patient. It’s hard but it’s better now. I feel free to say whatever I think. I am not afraid anymore,” said Ali, the construction worker.

Hadija Awad, 58, a housewife, added: “That (rising prices) is the only problem right now. God knows what will happen next. But we support the new government. ... I am not afraid of Gaddafi supporters. Our men will get them.” (Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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